An efficient shipping process depends on working as a team
There are countless ways to prepare an order for shipment. What works or one nursery may not be the best process for all operations. “Every shipping process is different because every farm has a different layout,” Elizabeth Peters of The Peters Company said.
She and her husband, Rick Peters, are Lean consultants who work with a number of nursery and greenhouse industry clients and their suppliers. “The mistake people will tend to make in shipping is believing it can only be done one way,” Rick added.
Teamwork and communication are essential elements of smooth order fulfillment. From the office staff handling the paperwork to the pulling crews, no part of the process is isolated from the other. “Shipping operations have good people doing the best they can with the resources they have,” said Rick. “The key is to help them work together as a team. It’s critical that each person realize that what they do — or fail to do — impacts the entire organization.”
The cost of transportation is one of the biggest expenses of any nursery, so If the nursery isn’t ready when the truck arrives because of an error in the process, it’s a huge, unnecessary expense.
Where many nurseries have drastically different processes for the vast array of products, they do share some common practices.
Right from the get-go, the shipping process starts by understanding an order’s anticipated delivery date and destination. As consumer habits evolve, nurseries are seeing the window for getting plants to market is compressing more and more each year.
Josh Russell, distribution manager at Kraemer’s Nursery (Mount Angel, Oregon), is part of a team that operates an 850-acre nursery that grows woody and ornamental flowering shrubs, broadleaf evergreens, grasses, perennials, conifers, roses, and other products.
“We’re realizing now that the best time to ship a plant is when someone’s in the store buying a plant,” he said.
The old mindset of the nursery industry believed retailers needed to have a massive inventory of full-bloom plants right at the beginning of the season. Plants were shipped early — very early.
Russell looks at the sales data and offers a counterpoint. In many cases, customers are still hibernating under the covers and not even thinking about landscaping their yards that early in the season. A retailer can set up brilliant displays of inspiring varieties, but if nursery’s bloom fades away while sitting for weeks on a shelf, the data shows the product won’t sell.
Kraemer’s provides containerized green goods to big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Walmart. These stores rely on Kraemer’s to know what’s coming up for bloom and what will fit on the truck. “Our process starts by looking at the retailer’s previous week sales and creating replenishment orders based on customer demand,” Russell said. Staff can see exactly what products are selling and consider the rate of depletion at a certain location.
Stock replenishment orders are created Monday morning for loading on to trucks that will arrive the following Wednesday. Kraemer’s sends nearly 1,200 truckloads out on the road each year.
Because of the timeliness of their response time, the nursery has an on-hand logistic coordinator who plans the most effective way to route their material to its destination. “Trucks get no more lead time than we do. We don’t know how many trucks we’ll send out until 36-48 hours before an order.”
The nursery-controlled replenishment ordering system is dramatically different from the customer-driven ordering process of other nurseries. For example, Robinson Nursery Inc. in Amity, Oregon, sells an array of bare root trees, including red maples, sugar maples, honey locust, redbud, crab apple, pears, and others. They receive orders online or through a sales manager.
Also in contrast to Kreamer’s, Robinson doesn’t start planning the route — their transportation broker does. “I know a lot of people plan their own routes, but we let our brokers plan the route for us,” Chris Robinson, co-owner of Robinson Nursery said. It’s a matter of letting the experts take the wheel, as well as a professional courtesy.
The nursery’s bare root order quantities and delivery addresses are given to a broker to configure a drop order and driving route. A broker will be briefed if part of the order needs to be dropped first or second, but this partnership lets a broker plan any additional stops during their journey.
“We arrange 60–70 percent of our own trucks, but a lot of our customers run their own pickups,” Robinson said. At peak season from January 1 to mid-May, the nursery will arrange for 175 total truckloads. However, 10–15 different trucks can pass through in a day because customers arranged for a driver to come to pick up 5 feet of a load just to fill out their truck.
Counting it all out
All products that leave the nursery are labeled. Many dormant bare root plants are indiscernible from others at the time of shipping, so they get tagged. Sales stickers and information need to go on containerized products that move directly onto a show floor as well. Counting labels helps count out product for the pull crew.
In the labeling department at Kraemer’s, staff gather the exact number of labels for each of the varieties on the order forms from aisles of bookshelves — which are commonly seen in nurseries. Here, labels are stored in alphabetical order, by botanical name.
The containers in the field do not have SKUs, so stickers are also printed at this time. The correct count of labels and stickers are packaged together based on where the products are grouped on the farm. They are then passed off to the pull crew.
In the field, the pull crew will place plant labels in the containers and attach SKU stickers to the side as they are loaded on tractors. The fully counted and labeled order will later move to the loading dock.
Robinson’s labels aren’t for retail purposes, although they do have some branded with their nursery’s website and social media accounts.
Once their broker kicks back the shipping route plans, the nursery outlines what plants need to be dug up first for the pull team. Their local computer system lists the plants, their location, and deadlines on televisions screens so the pull-crew can see the order’s progress in real-time. Pull sheets also list the amount of space on the load will take up on the truck.
Robinson uses radio frequency (RF) identification tags throughout their processing time. These contain information about the plant, including name. During the grading and bundling process, the crew will net trees just outside of the bed where they were pulled, and attach one tag.
“The person who’s running the truck will have a handheld device — often an iPhone connected to a TV screen — that will show the whole crew what plants need to go on the truck,” Robinson said. The scans check off the products on the TV screens, and generate the paperwork for the order for the driver and the drop off recipients.
Ready for the stage
Staging is a step where counted products are grouped together in an order for load. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t add value to the product.
At Robinson, it takes about a day to pull a full truck’s worth of bare root trees. Batches of netted plants are staged in shipping lanes next to the dock. The nursery uses 12-foot by 8-foot metal pallets to stack trees in a staging area. A full truck will take 4 ½ pallets.
According to Robinson, the process is like a game of Tetris. “We put the roots out on the first layer on each side of the pallet, and then we put the roots in front of the other roots and keep going back and forth until the pallet is like 10 feet high,” he said.
Overall, it takes about 30 hours from the time the order is processed until the plants are on the dock.
Reallocating the correct amount of labor to pull plants for an order is sometimes difficult. Given the size and scale of wholesale nurseries, it’s common to see labor divided up into certain areas of an operation. So, if there is a large order for one type of plant in a small area of the farm, the labor may not be available to match the work.
Kraemer’s is experimenting with a new process for right-sizing their labor needs. For shipping, Kraemer’s uses racks — either their own or rented, depending on the destination — where plants can be stacked in 5-, 4-, or 3-shelf layers. Instead of transferring the products from a pull crew to a racking crew, today, the same crew stays with that order.
“It allows us to send our supply of labor to where the demand for product is,” Russell said. This new approach also bypasses the staging processes altogether. Pull crews used to spend time hooking and unhooking tractors, transferring the orders to a new team who would put the plants on racks — a process that included wasteful steps.
Now, the docking manager will have lines of the empty racks — grouped by truck — ready for the pull crew in the loading area. Each rack is given a large label itemizing the rack counts. Such labels utilize the Lean concept of “visual controls.” Crew members follow the printed directions that tell them what plants go on each shelf of each rack.
The rack itself maintains color-coded labels throughout shipment, where the large truck number and truck length are listed on the left. A bigger drop number is listed below, telling the driver at which stop to unload the rack. The store number and city are listed on the right, along with the order number for reference.
Loading the truck
Loading a truck is like solving a puzzle, and the pieces have as many different sizes as a nursery’s product mix. Overall, moving racks on to a truck is a large-scale geometry test, and loading bareroot products gets fairly messy.
Hand-stacking or floor-loading are two names for describing the same process of placing and stacking as many plants as you safely can in a truck. Unfortunately, Robinson Nursery simply hasn’t found an efficient way to palletize bareroot products for shipment, so they floor load these orders.
In floor-loading, plastic sheeting is laid down on the floor, a layer of hay is spread on top, and trees are re-stacked inside the truck as they were staged. Trees are loaded in a certain order. “We load the truck with Zelkova first and then an Acer last, so our customers pull things off alphabetically,” Robinson said. Hay is layered throughout the stacking process and will be sprayed with water to maintain the moisture levels.
Depending on product mix and how many different customers are on a truck, it takes about three to five hours to stack the load.
Kraemer’s only does hand-stacks for a small percentage of orders. Hand-stack eliminates the cost of pallets and racks for shipping. However, in doing so, products have to be moved an additional step to the end of the truck during the unloading process — also referred to as tailgating. It is becoming more frowned upon by truck drivers.
Kraemer’s docking manager arranges the racks by truckload. So, how many racks does the order need, and how much floor space will they take on the truck?
“It’s all tribal knowledge,” Russell said. “It’s made possible by a couple of key people who spend a lot of time on the docks. They understand the plants and they understand the racks.” This position intuitively knows how tall a plant is at this time of year, and suggests how high to set the shelves on the rack. Sending a truck out with a half-empty rack is just simply paying a lot of money to send someone air.
Whether the goal is to keep a show floor stocked with fresh plants or to ship a full load of trees on the cusp of waking up, nurseries need to efficiently prepare a load for shipment.
Green products require specific temperature and moisture levels. If a refrigerated truck — a “reefer,” to use the lingo — arrives too late and product begins drying out waiting to load, valuable inventory will quickly perish.
Develop a good working relationship with your transportation partners. Dale Parra of Truck Transportation Services (Portland, Oregon) offers three good tips.
The A-B-C’s of Transportation
Ask for “All-in”: “The quote you receive may just quote you the flat rate for ‘the line’ — or the line of the haul,” Parra said. Added costs for fuel surcharges and extra picks and drop charges may still apply after the shipment is complete. “Ask if you received an ‘all-in’ quote that includes additional costs.”
Be nice: “Truck drivers network with each other and talk about their experiences at nurseries,” Parra said. “if you make it comfortable for them, they’ll let other drivers know.”
Communicate: “Knowing when the product will be ready to load is the most important thing,” Parra said. With the regulation of electronic logbooks, a driver is limited to a certain number of hours that they can be on the road. If a driver has to burn their clock down waiting for a load, it can damage a grower’s reputation.
Bill Goloski is the publications manager at the Oregon Association of Nurseries. He writes for and designs Digger magazine.